[ Following is a guest post by Hannah Green. CM readers may remember her JLF diary from earlier this year. Green completed her B.A. in Asian and Middle Eastern History and South Asian Languages and Civilizations at Northwestern University in 2012. Since then, she has spent her time between the United States and India, writing and learning Urdu. Her work has also appeared in OPEN Magazine and Asia Times Online. Follow her on twitter: @write_noise.]
In the early 1980s, an idealistic young American and a group of Mujahideen trekked for thirty-six hours through the Hindu Kush Mountains, from Pakistan to Afghanistan, toward a battle. The journey would have been much shorter if the American had not been there. He was a burden to them, although he convinced himself he was there to help. His broad goal was to “be of service” to the Afghans, and the best way he could think of was to report their story, take their pictures, and convince the Americans back home to send more money and guns for the fight against the Soviets. (This would fail.) As he stumbled and fell through rocky rivers and cold mountain peaks, the Mujahideen helped him as much as they could. They carried his pack and his heaviest camera. They found fruit and picked it for him to eat, even as they themselves maintained the Ramazan fast. When the American could go on no longer, they carried him. To add to our collection of images of the region, it is good for us just to picture it. Mujahideen wearing sandals, feet bleeding, carry a sickly American in Italian hiking boots over dusty hills in the dark.
The American was William T. Vollman and he recounts this trek in his memoire, An Afghanistan Picture Show. The memoire was first printed in 1992, by Farrar Straus & Giroux. This July, Melville House released a new edition of An Afghanistan Picture Show, after it had been out of print for years.
Reading this book feels like taking a journey with an eternally hapless guide. You see different sights, experience all kinds of rough and unfamiliar terrain, but never are able to hold your footing long enough to see what’s really going on or to form an opinion. That’s what Vollmann wants. His time in Afghanistan and Pakistan taught him a lesson about his own limitations, and those of his government. ”It continues to astonish me how easy it is to harm people and how difficult it is to help him,” he writes in his introduction to the 2013 edition.
In order to distance himself from the youth who foolishly believed he could be of service to the Afghans, Vollmann refers to his 23-year-old self as “the Young Man” throughout his narration. He recreates the sense of confusion and helplessness the Young Man experienced in Afghanistan, Vollmann jumbling vignettes about his failures and humiliation, descriptions of his weakness and illness, his distaste for the food, unsettling philosophical questions, various jabs that Afghani and Pakistani military leaders directed toward him, interviews of waiters, refugees, politicians and government employees, facts about Afghanistan, and anecdotes about his dreams and his past.